Essay: On Valentine's Day, Always Check Your Glove Box

Feb 11, 2016

All the concern about immigration and border security has Lake Effect essayist Avi Lank thinking about a time when, at least along the US/Canadian border, things were a little different.

Between Montreal, Quebec, and Syracuse, N.Y., there is a large river, high mountains and an international border. In the 1940s, when my Canadian father was courting my American mother, the border was the least of those barriers.

In that pre-Interstate, pre-9/11 era, bridges over the St. Lawrence River were rickety and roads through the Adirondack Mountains were two-lane, but the U.S.-Canada border was so easy to cross that on occasion it was marked by a traffic cone and a sign asking drivers to check in at a nearby police station.

So in 1947, when my dad decided it was time to ask mother to marry him, the border was of no concern. He went to a swank store in downtown Montreal, bought a diamond ring, popped it into the glove box of his father’s car and started to drive south. He decided to enter the U.S. at a small crossing near Tout River, N.Y., that he often used. “Anything to declare,” the smiling border guard asked. “No,” dad said. Then guard did something unusual – he told my father to open the glove box.

I have driven across the U.S./Canada border scores of times, even after it was considerably tightened following 9/11, and have never been asked to open my glove box. My dad told me that was the only time he ever was, either.

Obviously, Dad was nervous and did something to tip off the guard, who of course found the undeclared diamond. The guard offered my father three choices – pay a hefty duty on the ring, have the ring confiscated or be arrested for smuggling.

Now, you need to know a bit about my dad. He became a salesman and real estate broker, so instead of accepting the guard’s choices, he negotiated.

He told the guard that he was taking the ring into the US for love, not money. The guard said he understood, but that made the ring a gift and therefore subject to import duty. Well, my dad asked, what if it were on the finger of my fiancé when she was crossing the border? That would be fine, the guard said, as it would be her property. But it is too late for that, the guard added, as I already found you smuggling it into the U.S.

OK,” said my dad, “how about this. I will leave the ring here with you, go get my girl, drive back, get the ring from you, cross into Canada, give it to her there and then drive back in to the US. Would that work?”

The guard, perhaps impressed with the trust this brash young Canadian was willing to give him – no receipt would be exchanged after all – said OK. And that is what happened.

My dad left the ring with the guard, drove more than 200 miles over the mountains to Syracuse, picked up my mother, and then drove 200 miles back, stopping for moment at the border post before crossing into southern Quebec. Safely in Canada, he proposed and she said yes. Dad slipped the ring on Mon’s finger and they went back across the border, bringing the diamond in tax free and without a smuggling charge.

Mom still remembers the feel of that border station looming over the engagement site.

As Valentine’s Day approaches, it is comforting to know that, on occasion, even a hard-bitten border guard can have enough romance to bend the rules just the right amount to help launch a marriage that ended up lasting more than 63 years.

Essayist Avi Lank is a former reporter for the Milwaukee Sentinel and later the Journal Sentinel. He’s also coauthor of the recent book, The Man Who Painted the Universe.